This Years’ Experience with the Christmas Rush

     In past years, this is crunch time for me. I make mad dashes to the mall to pick up last-minute gifts, prepare worship services for Christmas Eve, and visit shut-ins. I learned to navigate the craziness of the season by finding joy in all my busy-ness. There is a rush of adrenaline rushing to get the perfect gift for different people. My immediacy matched by everyone else as fellow shoppers unite with the same goal in mind. I find a sense of purpose and ritual in the madness of the holiday season.

     This year is vastly different. Like many others, I bought most of my presents online as in-person shopping is frowned upon due to the risk of acquiring the dreaded Covid-19 virus. Gone are the rituals that in some strange way brought meaning to this particular time of the year. Planning for worship is not the same as preparing to provide meaningful virtual services and parking lot services. My soul cries out that it wants the moment on Christmas Eve when the congregation raises candles to the skies as we sing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” There is something spectacular to see from a pastor’s view the families that stand together, filling the air with beautiful harmonies. For a moment, there is a sacred space of incredible peace. The holiness of the light in a dark room captures the splendor of the season.

     This year, we will not share in the same space the hope and mystery of the holiday. Should that prevent us from discovering other ways of providing sacred space? I think not. The good is that the darkness gives way to the light, even in the strangest of circumstances. Perhaps we can establish new ways of maintaining our traditions. We could light candles with our immediate family and take in the beauty of the light. Remember, Christ’s light shines in us everywhere we go. This year offers us a new challenge to express our faith to those closest to us. Maybe the ones that we hold most dear may need to hear the message from our mouths directly. Tell them, the light came into the world, and in so doing, offered us a way to shine in every circumstance. On this day, I wish you a joyful end to the second week of Advent.

Fear of Letting Go

     One of the great premises of Buddhist philosophy is the idea of giving up our attachment to things. By emptying ourselves of ways that we hold on to items, we can fill the new spaces with a higher consciousness. In our Christian world, we practice the principle in a similar yet different way. Christian emptying moves us to get read of an attachment to everything that keeps us from worshipping God. In other words, I must disassociate myself from people, places, and things that prevent me from living in wholeness.

     I am not talking about waking up one morning and cleaning the house. I suggest a fearless and moral inventory of our attachment to the things that stand in the way of freedom to pursue the Most-High God. For instance, my inability to forgive a person does damage to me. To grow in my faith, I must let go and let God do the holy work in my spirit.    

     In a moment of true confession, I admit that there are people with whom I struggle to practice the art of forgiveness. They did way too much damage in my life, and I get angry at the thought of their name. My faith encourages me to continue to work until I reach a time when willingness speaks louder than anger, and surrender to the Divine overcomes the negative repercussions of resentment. The reality of the unconditional release of bitterness marks the moment of real transformation.

     In this moment of Advent, let us reflect on our attachments to things that keep us separated from God. Let us pray for the willingness to surrender them and move forward on our journey. Let us grow in our faith until we mirror the image of Christ. In our moments of most profound hurt, when we feel the need to move from darkness to light, the real crying out of the Advent season rings true as we plead, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

Seeing Color in a Black and White World

     We live in a dualistic society that assumes many things about an individual based on how one lives his/her life, who they vote for, and where they live. As a Christian, failing to look beyond the surface, hinders many souls from expressing themselves and is dangerous to their mental health. When a person profoundly feels different from their culture, feelings of despair, and even depression might trigger unhealthy and damaging responses. Many fall into darkness, feeling unworthy of God’s love.

     The good news of Advent is that Christ came down to look deeper into the soul. Holy actions remind us that the soul contains many colors, different hues that make up a human spirit. Faith challenges us to respond to others with the love that Jesus freely shared with those whom he encountered. I think of the woman caught in the act of adultery. The black and white thinking crowd gathered stones to put her to death, but the Savior looked beyond the surface to discover rich colors, longing for wholeness, hoping to find salvation in the kindness of the one who sat with her in the dirt. When healing hands touched hers, she discovered that she was more than what the world named her. She found the many colors of faith which reclaimed a heart for the Kingdom of God.

     On this day of Advent, let us find joy in knowing that creation discovers the incredible Holy Spirit planted deep within our hearts. A black and white world can never compete with what we have inside our being. The colors of joy, hope, and love reverberate from our souls’ depth into a world in desperate need of rediscovering potential us. Let us move forward from the darkness into a world filled with many spectrums of light.

We Embrace Joy

     When we move from darkness into the light, there is a supposition that everything reverts to a time when life proceeded in a stress-free environment. I often find myself shocked when my entry into the light is quite different from my entry into the darkness. “No, Lord, you answered my prayer all wrong. I want it done this way.”

     What I fail to accept is the solution provided with Divine wisdom comes in radically different ways. Eventually, if I stop fighting, I discover that the new course is much better, and the benefits far outweigh any quick fixes. Faith must interrupt the doubts, and hope gives way to a brighter day. We step into the solution and allow the Spirit to guide us.

     On this day in Advent, we thank God by remembering that our entrance into the light is sometimes fraught with struggle. We ask for strength in our hour of need so that we will not slip back into the darkness but gladly embrace the luminary essence of the Holy One of Israel. We sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” but have a tough time living as if God ransomed us. In the toughest of moments, we discover the One who keeps us balanced so that our feet may walk a steady line. We embrace our joy so that it will be made full.

One Word Makes a Big Difference

     As I got ready to go to church this morning, I heard a statement that bothered me. While not talking about the birth of Christ, someone said, “If you come down…” My first reaction was one of anger. “What do you mean ‘if you come down?’” Our season of Advent is one of preparation as we expect the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps the phrase should read, “When you come down…” The use of the word ‘if’ implies a sense of skepticism that does not ring well in my ears. Christ does come down and lives among us.

     Loaded with fire in my belly, I did what I should do in the first place, and I prayed for guidance. I realized that there is another way to interpret the “If you come down” statement. What if the author used “if” as a gesture of respect and humility? In this case, the tiny two-letter word implies our lack of worthiness, therefore making the gift of God’s presence even more remarkable and bolder. In other words, God saw the “if” and moved to action. The Holy One erased all questions. The Divine came down to us, in our humblest posture, to bring us the gift of grace.

     The second interpretation of the phrase in question reinforces a penitent heart and not one of doubt or confusion. I hear a prayer that beings in this fashion, “Oh Lord, my God, I know that I am not worthy to receive you, but if you choose to come to me, fill me with a renewed spirit so that I may fully worship you.” This posture represents the hope of Advent. God chose to come to us by giving us His Son, God with us!

What Do We Mean by Darkness?

     Sometimes I am guilty of using “churchy” words without explaining myself. There are phrases that we throw around without knowing the full extent of their meaning. What we do is set up boundaries for those who use familiar language when describing ministry. It isn’t easy to comprehend anything without first exploring the rich history that defines theologians’ ideas from generations. In our minds, we must first understand before we can fully appreciate the meaning behind a text or thought.

     “So,” I ask, “What does it mean to walk in darkness?” For me, when I speak of the symbol of darkness, I understand the word to mean hopelessness, chaos, and constant searching for a way out. It is like searching in a pitch-black tunnel without any light to help me find my way out. I think of the times that I felt lost, unable to make a healthy decision that guides me back to the path of hope and comfort. In this instance, darkness represents the idea of being forced to remain in a place that goes nowhere. We stay trapped and unavailable to save ourselves.

     On this Monday of Advent, let us reflect on what we mean when we say darkness. Take a fearless moral inventory, and remember the times in life when light did not appear. How did it feel? Go beyond the surface and recall the fear and isolation. When you complete your journey, stop, and give thanks to our God. Our darkness turned to light, and nothing else ever was the same.

A Fantasia on Christmas Carols

     One of my favorite seasonal musical selections is “Fantasia on Christmas Carolsby the great English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams. The piece starts very somberly with a single cello and a baritone voice who musically narrates through the darkness. The choir hums until it takes over the narrative part. At one point, the entire timbre of the music changes and joyful singing replaces the first part of the selection’s heaviness. Suddenly, Christmas carols interrupt the dreariness, and light, short rhythmic patterns of familiar holiday songs fill the air. Christ is born, and weariness gives way to excitement.

     Our conversion experience is the foundation of the masterpiece. The gifted composer, Vaughn Williams, captured the transformation from darkness into light with musical decisions that befit a genius. We understand that the people who walked in darkness saw a great light. Our souls reflect the promise of new life and conversion sprung in the innermost parts of our being.

     On this second Sunday of Advent, I hope that we share in the joy of music-making as we realize that each carol, each hymn that we sing, may lead us to the father. Every song presents a new theology of hope and resurrection. Just like our lives are living examples of how night became day, mourning gave way to delight, and we find pleasure in a new way of being in the world. Let us pick up the mantle of hope and share it with a world that longs to be free.

What Have I Surrendered?

     Today I find myself in the precarious position of wanting to stop and take a moral inventory of myself. The question that drives my curiosity is, “What have I surrendered to move from darkness into the light?” As I spend time with my problem, I cannot help but give thanks because my reality is quite different from past moments. My transformation required profound and often painful realizations about myself and the negative messages from my childhood. I continue to work on issues that keep me connected to the darkness.

     How honest are we with ourselves? Do we turn the moral judgment finger back to ourselves? By punishing our spirits, we deter any possibility of pure freedom. We continue to live in a graveyard whose chain comes into creation with each lock of shame, regret, or negative evaluation about the self. The more the dark forges link by link, we remain captive to our pain.

     The good news of Advent is that we can let go and embrace the light of the Holy One of Israel. Pure love comes to us, just as we are, and redeems us. The Spirit makes us whole. In the light, we discover the truth about who we are and our place in the world. We learn that our journey becomes much more comfortable when the presence of God illuminates our path. It starts with one step, one act of faith that pierces the blackness of our souls. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captured me.

We Come Into the Light, Right Now

     There are some watered-down theological assumptions out in the world that our real reward is after death. The immediacy of a life filled with God’s love is not as crucial in the here and now. After all, why strive to transform hearts and minds when we can get our ticket stamped for a paradise beyond this world? I experienced saving grace, so why do I need to worry about anything else? I call this reckless thinking a bunch of (okay, I’ll keep this “G” rated).

     Those who follow an “evacuate” theology never full vest in helping prepare souls for the kingdom of God living and breathing in the world, right here, right now. Our transformation is not about a one-time event but is a constant reaffirmation that molds a wounded heart into action. We commit daily to the One who delivered us from the darkness and into the light. The Spirit in the world is crucial and depends on the communion of saints gathering to be the hands and feet of Christ at the moment.

     The Holy One calls us out of the darkness and into the light. We share the good news with those who remain in doubt and fear. When we enter oneness with the Divine, our work begins. Faith grows stronger with action as we set about moving onwards towards perfection. Transformation occurs by moving from the restoration of the inside to the outside’s sharing of hope. In the darkness, we hear God’s invitation, but in the light, we share holy salvation. We live as new creations, not merely exist, and wait for our next reward. Our renewal of life takes up the beauty of love and joy and eagerly shares it with a world desperate to hear the good news of the Triune God.

     Let Advent be a time by which we remember that our lives met joy, and in so doing, shine the light to a very dark world.

Saved By Grace; Follow By Choice

     In many Christian circles, the debate about conversion centers around the moment of belief and our actions, and the holy mystery surrounding us. While I know that we have nothing to do with the gift, we have agency in responding. Do not get me wrong; I do not mean that our salvation depends on our works. I propose that both parties, God, and an individual enter a covenant with one another, each pledging to fulfill their end of the bargain. We must step forward and accept the present which reaches out to us.

     A gift can remain on a table forever and be useless to everyone that walks near us. What good is an offering if not held and put to good use? “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity” (Jm. 2:17 CEB). We must take ownership of our part of the bargain. We know that no human can manifest the gift of salvation. All attempts to duplicate the work of God are void and nil. True conversion combines the giver (God) and the receiver (humanity). Our dependence on the Divine demonstrates our commitment to the One who lavishly shares the reality of eternal life.

     Through this season of Advent, let us remain aware of the gift giver. Let us demonstrate our commitment to live and follow the love that flows from the Creator, who gave us life. This renewal of hope is a season of giving, but also, we celebrate a season of living. Old things pass away, and we rise from the darkness and into the arms of love. We take a leap of faith, confident that love will lead us home.

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